Timothy Barnett spent nearly five years in state prison for a 1990s foreclosure rescue scam in which he conned homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars. Now, prosecutors say, he has been at it again, targeting residents in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood he fleeced before.
But this time, the state is unleashing one of its more powerful weapons against him. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has charged Barnett under California's much-debated three-strikes law. Usually aimed at offenders with a history of violent crime, it is rarely used for white-collar offenses such as fraud.
Arrested in April, the 47-year-old Barnett is charged with 23 felonies — including theft from the elderly, identity theft and real estate fraud — for allegedly tricking five people into unknowingly granting him title to their homes. He has pleaded not guilty.
Some experts said the case would be one of the first times a person charged with a white-collar crime was prosecuted under the state's three-strikes law. If convicted, Barnett could face life in prison.
"I've never heard of such a case," said Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor and outspoken three-strikes opponent. "This law was intended to deal with serious and violent felons and lock them up forever. If this guy's guilty, he's a pretty despicable and dangerous character. But he hasn't killed anybody."
Barnett received his first two strikes — both for residential burglary — in 1997. Burglary is one of the dozens of serious or violent crimes that are considered strikes under state law.
In that case, Barnett was accused of talking his way into people's homes, offering to refinance their mortgages, and diverting property or loan proceeds to himself.
Prosecutors had charged him with burglary because he met with his victims in their homes. Under California law, a person can be convicted of residential burglary for entering someone's house with the intent to commit a felony, even if he or she enters with the homeowner's permission.
The three-strikes law, passed by California voters in 1994, has been controversial because it allows any felony to serve as the third strike. So each of the 23 charges that Barnett faces could trigger a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman, who supervises the office's real estate fraud section, said the three-strikes penalty was appropriate for Barnett because of his criminal past.
"Mr. Barnett, if he did the things he's charged with, is a horrible danger to the community," Huntsman said in an interview. "He has an ability to make people trust him and he uses it to steal their biggest asset, their home, and that's horrible."
He acknowledged that Barnett could be the only person in California to face the three-strikes penalty for fraud-related residential burglaries.
Mike Reynolds, a retired Fresno photographer who helped write the three-strikes initiative after his daughter, Kimber, was murdered in 1992, continues to monitor the law's implementation and said he was not aware of any other case in which it was invoked against an offender accused of white-collar crimes.
Michael A. Ramos, president of the California District Attorneys Assn., also could not recall a similar case in which a defendant accused of white-collar crimes faced a life term under the three-strikes law.
Barnett's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said his client did nothing wrong. Instead, his Buena Park real estate investment company, called Trusperity, sought to help people in financial distress, McKesson said.
Barnett told clients — orally and in signed contracts — that he would buy their homes, pay off their delinquent mortgages and allow them to lease back their homes at payments they could afford, McKesson said.
"His whole thing is he told the truth; he's at peace," McKesson said. "He gave them a chance to live in their homes three more years. He satisfied his end of the bargain; they didn't satisfy theirs.... These people knew what they signed and at the last minute they came in and said they didn't know."
McKesson said he thought prosecutors crossed the line in seeking a life sentence.
"The three-strikes law was intended to punish violent and serious criminals, robbers and rapists and murderers," the lawyer said. "It did not intend for this hybrid form of burglary to qualify for a third strike."
Prosecutors said Barnett started his second series of thefts in 2005, three years after his parole.
He is charged with tricking victims — who said they thought they were refinancing their delinquent mortgages — into selling him their homes for a fraction of their value. By the time prosecutors began looking at Barnett again, he had bought a $3.1-million home in Orange County and three Mercedes-Benz vehicles.